Restless Oklahoma: Tulsa’s Cave House

Driving west out of downtown Tulsa, around a bend in Charles Page Boulevard, if you don’t blink and miss it you’ll spy sitting right off the road a house that looks like something out of The Flinstones. If you stop for the $10 tour, inside you’ll find décor that’s as unique and eclectic as the home’s exterior.

But that’s not all that makes the Tulsa Cave House special. This nearly-a-century old building has a rich and sometimes dark history that includes ties to Prohibition-era gangsters and the KKK, numerous hauntings, and secrets still waiting to be discovered.

Built in 1920 as a family-oriented chicken restaurant, the outdoor picnic tables and friendly exterior served as a clever façade. Inside, if you knew the password, you would be led through a winding tunnel that led to a large chamber set deep in the cliffs behind the house, where asking for “coffin varnish” or “horse linament” would get you a shot of illicit, home-brewed whiskey. This speakeasy was said to be a favorite of Pretty Boy Floyd, who reportedly stopped by with his gang whenever he passed through Tulsa.

At some point after the end of Prohibition, the tunnel leading from the house to the hidden speakeasy was closed up and plastered over. According to rumors, other tunnels in the cliffs also led to the chamber, and were used to hide the bodies of Klan victims. Allegedly, the adjacent park is also the site of a mass grave full of victims of the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot.

With that kind of history, it should come as no surprise that the house is allegedly haunted, although reports of ghostly encounters describe spirits who seem to be at least somewhat friendly and mostly harmless.

One such ghost purported to haunt the premises is known as the Rag Lady. Apparently the spirit of a woman who was frequently seen wandering up and down the boulevard in the mid-century, wearing layers of coats and collecting rags and scraps from the trash, she is said to still be up to her old tricks, stealing rags from around the house, washing them and hanging them out of an upstairs window to dry.

Another spirit allegedly haunting the Cave House is known as the Key Lady. While not much is known about her origins, visitors to the house are said to have had their keys go missing, only to have them turn up on a nearby hilltop where they had not been previously.

The house is also allegedly full of secret hiding places. One such secret spot, a loose floorboard in one of the upstairs rooms, was discovered in the 1970s and was still hiding a stash of Prohibition-era liquor bottles. Other such places are believed to remain undiscovered throughout the house. One legend even says that diamonds are hidden somewhere within the Cave House walls.

So the next time you’re in Tulsa, if you’ve got $10 and half an hour or so to spare, head west on Third Street until it turns into Charles Page Boulevard, pull over at the weird house on the curve, and tell the owner you’ve always wanted to see the inside. Just be sure to hold onto your keys.

Restless Oklahoma: Tulsa’s Hex House
Archive photo © Tulsa World

Suspicious deaths, basement-dwelling slaves, fraudulent activity and mysterious midnight burials — these are just a few of the sordid goings-on inside a stately-looking brick duplex in early 1940s Tulsa, which served as inspiration for one of today’s top annual Halloween haunted house attractions.

The true story is about as crazy as it gets.

Carolann Smith, a seemingly mild-mannered woman of 51, lived in the duplex with two other women, Virginia Evans and Wiletta Horner, both in their early 30s at the time. It might not seem so strange for a middle-aged matron to share a duplex with two younger women. But what is strange is the apparent hold Smith had over the two.

See, Evans and Horner didn’t live in the other half of the duplex. They made their home in the house’s basement, living in rags and sleeping on orange crates, while Smith herself occupied the rest of the house and lived in luxury, “buying expensive perfume, a $250 silverware set, a Packard car, 46 pairs of shoes, 18 pairs of gloves, 26 hats and enough makeup and beauty supplies ‘to stock a drugstore’,” according to the Tulsa World. She was able to afford this largely due to the fact that Evans and Horner, both of whom had steady jobs, signed all of their paychecks over to Smith. When all of this came to light, the women claimed that Smith had “mesmerized” them into becoming her slaves, earning Smith the nickname “She-Svengali.” Upon searching the house, authorities later found several books on magnetism and the power of the mind, as well as on magic and witchcraft.

After finally being discovered and rescued, the women told authorities that Smith had starved and beaten them for “religious purification” purposes. News coverage at the time also hinted at details pointing to a “sex angle” that was apparently deemed too lurid to report in full.

But that’s not all. Smith also managed to bilk Evans’ father out of $17,000 by convincing him that she was providing nursing care for the young woman. She also somehow convinced the federal government to give her a wartime ration book in the name of her pet bulldog, Bon Bon–one of two dogs later discovered occupying coffins that were dug up after neighbors reported witnessing a suspicious moonlight burial in Smith’s back yard.

And that’s still not all. The bulk of Smith’s income actually came from life insurance policies taken out on her husband, father and even her maid — each of whom conveniently died after naming Smith the beneficiary.

Was Smith a serial killer, a Svengali-like mesmerist wielding her occult powers to control her victims, or was she simply a con artist? Apparently no evidence was found to support the former, despite the convenient timing of the insurance payouts. For all of her apparent misdeeds, Smith was only convicted on charges of inducing Evans and Horner to falsely testify against a neighbor she apparently didn’t like, and also charged for mail fraud over the war rations. For this, she served only a single year in prison.

No one’s sure what became of Smith after she served her short sentence, and not much else is known because the file kept on the house by the city library was since stolen. As for the Hex House itself, it was demolished in the 1970s and eventually the site became a parking lot. The basement where Evans and Horner were enslaved, however, reportedly still remains beneath the black top, and both the rock foundation and the original front steps can still be seen around the lot.

The parking lot doesn’t get a lot of use these days, but when it was in regular use there were anecdotal reports of car lights coming on by themselves. Whether or not the location is actually haunted, there’s no doubt that the Hex House left an indelible mark on Tulsa and its history.

On coping with fear. And zombies.

I was planning to write something this week about clowns and why they’re so dang disturbing; but the truth is, I’m too distracted by real-life horrors this week to be much into the fun kind.

Yesterday, Matt and I learned of the passing of a Facebook friend, who was killed in a motor scooter accident. Apart from making us both really sad, it’s also made me hyper-aware of my own mortality and how there are no guarantees that we’ll reach old age. This is coming at a time when I’ve already been managing a certain amount of anxiety about the state of the world, which seems to be getting scarier by the minute.

The thing about living in Oklahoma is that all of the scariest threats seem far away. We’ve always felt insulated by virtue of the fact that we’re well inland and we’re a state that not many people outside of Oklahoma care about or even give much thought to. Of course, we have tornadoes, and those are scary, but that type of weather doesn’t occur here all year long. Tulsa has its fair share of violent crime, but we take reasonable precautions to help ensure that we won’t become victims. But when we watch things like terrorism and deadly epidemics on the news, we feel horrible for the people who are living with it, but also thankful that it’s all so far away an not part of our daily lives.

Except that these things have started to encroach on our own back yard. Recently, down in Moore, only about two hours away, a woman was beheaded by a recent convert to Islam. And now Ebola is starting to make the rounds down in Dallas, only a six-hour drive from here. And a 30-minute flight, which seems much more significant in light of the fact that the second nurse who’s been diagnosed with Ebola took a flight from Cleveland back to Dallas the day before she began showing symptoms. Dallas is a hub through which at least half of the flights from the Tulsa International Airport pass through, so there’s a high probability that there were people bound for Tulsa on that plane with her.

I’m not trying to scare-monger. My point is that these are anxiety-inducing times we live in, especially if you have an over-active imagination, as most writers tend to have. It’s important to have a way to deal with that anxiety and channel it in a healthy direction instead of becoming paralyzed with fear. One way I deal with it is to turn my focus to make-believe horrors. It’s much more fun to think about how I’d survive a zombie uprising than to think about how to avoid catching scary contagious diseases that make you bleed out of your face-holes.

Zombie plan
(via Infocult)

Of course, as a person of faith, the primary way I deal is to give it all to God. After confessing my fears and meditating on the promises of scripture, my anxiety invariably gives way to peace. But it’s easy to forget to do that, and to get wrapped up in the moment and fixated on what I could be doing to mitigate perceived threats. It’s also easy to feel overwhelmed and helpless in these moments. Ultimately, though, I trust that my life and the lives of those I love are in God’s hands, and that I don’t need to be afraid.

What about you, dear reader? What’s pushing your anxiety buttons lately? How do you manage anxiety and fear? Do you have a zombie plan? Let’s talk about it in the comments.